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Debate how to hire, not fire, teachers

With thousands of teachers' jobs on the chopping block across the country, there is a vigorous debate over how to implement layoffs in a "fair" way.

At issue in New York and other states is the policy of LIFO, "last in, first out". Seniority is the determining factor. There are calls from across the political spectrum to introduce performance evaluations, so that talented and relatively younger teachers do not have to lose their jobs. However, in most states such evaluation systems are not in place. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, introduced a bill to speed up the introduction of a process that was initiated by legislators last year. Some, like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, say that Cuomo's approach isn't fast enough; Bloomberg wants an exemption from LIFO when firing teachers this year. 

The Obama administration is also in favor of reforming the system. "If layoffs are based only on seniority, that doesn't help the kids," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "And particularly doesn't help the kids who need the most help."

The problem with the debate is that it assumes that massive layoffs - which would be devastating to schools - are inevitable. As The Wall Street Journal says, "The steep deficits that states now face mean that teacher layoffs this year are unavoidable." And that's not just a conservative opinion: Obama and the Democrats agree. What's most galling is how introducing performance evaluations is presented as a way to "help the kids," as Duncan says - at the same time ignoring how the layoffs themselves will hurt kids' education far, far more.

All the talk about performance evaluation sounds like corporate HR. That's no accident: the main trend in education is to treat it like a business, and this is just another example. The problem is that education is not a business. For more on that point (and others), I suggest you watch Diane Ravitch's tour de force in Wisconsin from two nights ago (located here).

Instead of debating how to fire teachers, we should be debating how to hire more. To the extent that staff cuts are necessary, control should be in the hands of those closest to the education process - the teachers themselves and school administrators (education-minded ones, not education-ignorant business types). But what's even more important is to challenge the idea of that layoffs are inevitable. And to do that, we need to value education as essential to our society.

One Response to “Debate how to hire, not fire, teachers” Leave a reply ›

  • You seem to assume that hiring more teachers would improve results, but as far as I know the evidence for that is weak, and many countries outperform the US even with large class sizes. Perhaps you can point me to some data on the subject?

    A large hiring binge would also suffer from the fact that it would have to draw from the pool of currently unemployed teachers, which would presumably drag down the average quality of teachers, assuming that unemployed teachers are usually less useful than those who have been able to find a job.

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